February 3, 2017 – Atlantic Canada is doing an excellent job of attracting new immigrants – but it is struggling to hold on to them.
The first three quarters of 2016 saw 11,600 newcomers to the four provinces in the region, according to a report by the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council.
That’s already up on the 8,300 immigrants welcomed in the whole of 2015, with the numbers boosted by the influx of Syrian refugees, and triple the numbers seen in 2002.
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A new immigration pilot program means officials from the council are predicting a figure of 19,000 new immigrants for 2017 for New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland & Labrador and Prince Edward Island.
But in the five years from their date of arrival, more than half of new immigrants leave and it is retention that poses the greatest challenge for the region.
Even within the four provinces themselves, 80 per cent of new immigrants gravitate towards the big cities, when it is often rural areas where the need is greatest.
Atlantic Canada is at the sharp end of Canada’s problems with aging populations. New immigrants are crucial to improving the demographic and increasing the number of working-age residents.
Provincial politicians have described it as the single biggest issue facing the region.
The Carrot Approach
Retention of immigrants in the more rural provinces is not a new problem for Canada, so if the current lawmakers are going to solve it, they need to think innovatively.
There needs to be considerable joined-up thinking across all levels of government to make it happen.
Provincial policy makers need to create the right conditions and consider a variety of measures for immigrants to remain there.
Some possible policies include:
- Short term provincial tax credits for new residents.
- Offer residential land purchases in outlying areas at below market prices.
- Conditional property tax exemptions.
Given the need to rely on immigration as a tool to meet growing demographic challenges, policy makers in Atlantic Canada and elsewhere must consider the carrot approach.
The immigration tools are in place. They just need to be complemented with input from a much wider range of stakeholders to create the right conditions for immigrants to remain by choice.
This strategy will go a long way to helping ensure the success of Canada’s overall immigration policy objectives.
It is not clear whether the federal government has a legal avenue to explore in terms of making immigrants reside in a specific province or area.
In order for a court to allow such a limitation, there is a need to show that chronic labour shortages in certain areas of Canada are a threat to the future of those areas.
Then a court might be convinced of the seriousness of the issue.
If the restriction was temporary and not too onerous on newcomers, there is a chance a court could find a way towards allowing it.
Building a new immigration program stream specifically for this purpose could also offset some of the concerns.
Immigrants could be restricted to living in certain areas, and in return they would be in with a better chance of gaining permanent residency, and more quickly.
But all of this seems unlikely given the major hurdle is the constitutional right to free movement for permanent residents.
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